Review: Next to Normal (Clearwater Theatre Company)

Toronto’s Clearwater Theatre Company presents the gripping drama of a family’s fight with mental illness, Next to Normal.

Next to Normal won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It’s an intelligent and gripping drama about a suburban family coping with the effects of a mother’s mental illness, and a scathing critique of psychopharmacology and the pharmaceutical industry. Oh, and it’s also a rock musical!

After I saw the Broadway touring production presented in Toronto by Dancap last year, I was floored that a musical could so intelligently examine the subject of mental illness and its effect on people’s lives. It quickly became one of my favourite musicals of the past ten years.

The work is now being licensed for performance by theatre groups and Clearwater Theatre Company is the first to tackle a local production of the show in Toronto.

Next to Normal is a challenging show for any theatre company; it deals with a difficult subject matter, it flies with heady emotions throughout and, the actors must portray complex characters while belting out the rock-infused score.

The cast consists of some top-notch Toronto musical-theatre talent and, not surprisingly, the performances are superb. All six performers in the cast are remarkably talented singers and turn in pitch-perfect vocal performances.

Kathryn Akin plays Diana Goodman, a suburban mother who suffers from bipolar depression, with a mastery of the incredible range of emotions the character goes through in the show and also instills the character with humour and humanity.

Jay Davis gives a measured and sensitive performance as Diana’s steadfastly loyal husband Dan. He really channels the increasing frustration, pain and helplessness of a caretaker looking after a loved one with a chronic illness.

Sara Farb plays Diana and Dan’s over-achieving yet consistently overlooked 16-year-old daughter Natalie with the perfect mix of insecurity and brooding teen angst that makes the character feel completely authentic.

James Daly and Andre Morin turn in confident performances as Natalie’s older brother Gabe, and her sweet-stoner boyfriend Henry, respectively. I really appreciate the fact that the young actors in the cast are the appropriate ages for their roles, it adds to the believability.

Adrian Marchuk rounds out the cast in the dual roles of psychiatrists Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine.

For the Clearwater Theatre Company production, director Kate Stevenson strips away the larger-than-life rock opera excesses of the Broadway production of Next to Normal and essentially transforms it into something akin to a chamber rock musical (if there is such a thing).

The production is staged in the intimate confines of the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space; gone is the multi-tiered arena rock spectacle set of the Broadway production. Instead, we find Rachel Forbes’ set of patchy white panels lining the back wall of the stage. The panels are reminiscent of the vinyl siding on the sides of many of the typical cookie cutter houses in suburbia. The missing panels hint at the crumbling life of the family within.

While a five-piece band plays the full arrangement of composer Tom Kitt’s original score, the music isn’t blared through the sound system at rock concert levels. Instead, the volume of the music is little bit muted and the actors sing un-amplified.

Musical director Rob Pittman mostly manages to pull it off; the singers are never overwhelmed by the band even though I did miss some of the big, loud rock ‘n’ roll quality of the score.

Overall, I really enjoyed seeing the show in a more intimate setting. The proximity to the actors and the fact that they’re singing un-amplified facilitates the audience’s connection to the characters and really heightens the emotional impact of the show.

Next to Normal is a rare show that lends credibility to the musical as an art form. When so many musicals are mindless fluff Next to Normal is intelligent, relevant, compelling and full of emotion.

The Clearwater Theatre Company production has taken every bit of emotion from the original show and distilled it down so it’s even more poignant in an intimate setting. Whether you’re new to the show or have seen it before, this production is well worth a look. Get your tickets now, you don’t want to miss this gem of a show.

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Photo credit:

  • Photo of Adrian Marchuk, Kathryn Akin and James Daly by Kelsi Rix

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